ISIS not on its back foot in Iraq, Syria

An American soldier in Ramadi in 2008. ISIS captured the city, which is less than 100 km  west of Baghdad last week. 

An American soldier in Ramadi in 2008. ISIS captured the city, which is less than 100 km  west of Baghdad last week. 

By Scott Taylor

The propaganda machine of the U.S.-led alliance in Iraq suffered a serious setback last week. Contrary to what we have been told for months, ISIS fighters were not “on their back foot,” nor have they been “contained” as a result of allied airstrikes. Instead of being downgraded and on the defensive, ISIS has been very much on the attack.

In a whirlwind offensive, ISIS captured the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, just 100 kilometres west of Baghdad. The most damaging aspect of this ISIS victory is that, once again, Iraqi government troops put up less than a token resistance.

As ISIS advanced, the Iraqis doffed their uniforms, threw away their American-supplied assault rifles, abandoned their armoured vehicles and fled in panic. Within hours, the very grateful ISIS victors were videotaping themselves driving around in their captured U.S.-built Humvee patrol vehicles. Presumably, the fleeing Iraqi soldiers made sure to leave the Humvees fully gassed up and the windshields clean — just like they did last spring when ISIS captured Mosul and, along with it, a vast arsenal of war materiel gifted by the Americans.

Anbar province is the cornerstone of what is known as the Sunni Triangle, and it is Iraq’s marginalized Sunni minority that provides ISIS with its primary support base.

With the government troops routed, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his increasingly impotent regime in Baghdad called upon the Shiite militia to mount a counteroffensive against ISIS in Ramadi. Although some Sunni tribal leaders have claimed to support the use of the Shiite militia against ISIS, those who remember the vicious Sunni versus Shiite inter-factional clashes of 2006 and 2007 recognize that such a plan is akin to pouring gasoline to douse a fire.

The fear is that moderate Sunnis, already feeling excluded by the Baghdad regime, would see the Shiite militia encroachment as a threat against their very existence, and thus drive them into the ranks of ISIS.

Since the onset of the ISIS crisis last spring, U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that his strategy does not involve putting American boots on the ground. The U.S.-led air alliance, of which Canada is a member, has the limited objective of containing ISIS advances and downgrading their ability to conduct operations.

In other words, the fall of Ramadi and the loss of all that Iraqi army weaponry means a big double fail for the alliance. Given that the combat air armada is to hold the line, alliance members — including Canada — are engaged in arming and training Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to enable them to defeat ISIS.

Last week’s defeat would therefore represent another rewinding of the eventual victory clock, as all those weapons and all that training disappeared in a flash at the first sign of an ISIS advance.

The speed with which the Iraqis deserted led them to be labelled “reverse supermen” because they wore their civilian clothes under their uniforms and disappeared when danger arose. More ominously, the hefty haul in war bounty that ISIS picked up in Ramadi would more than make up for any downgrading they have suffered in the months-long allied bombing campaign.

According to official reports, the Royal Canadian Air Force has mounted more than 937 sorties since October and successfully destroyed only a couple of dump trucks, a checkpoint and a suspected bomb factory.

During his usual spin-o-rama, Defence Minister Jason Kenney commented to the media that the Ramadi setback was essentially “no biggie.” It is Kenney’s depth of experience in such martial affairs that in war, you often suffer a setback (or two). The problem with Kenney’s current rosy assessment is that it in no way jibes with his previous comments regarding ISIS.

RCAF members in Kuwait. 

RCAF members in Kuwait. 

When the decision was made at the end of March to extend the mission in Iraq and expand it into Syria, Canadians were told that this was necessary because of the allied air force’s success against ISIS. We were told that ISIS losses in Iraq had forced them to withdraw their heavy equipment into Syria and hence, if we were to continue to take the fight to the enemy, we needed to chase him into his hiding place.

Well, it turns out that ISIS is not hiding after all. They are on the offensive in Syria as well, having just captured Palmyra, and with the securing of Ramadi, they are very much on their front foot in Iraq.

Of course, if no one admits that the present U.S. strategy is flawed, then we will simply continue the cycle of arming and training Iraqis in perpetuity. While the current effort may have begun in the fall of 2014, don’t forget the U.S. has been arming, training, and mentoring Iraq’s security forces since the invasion in 2003.

The very definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Keep on believing, Mr. Kenney.